The New Totalitarianism and the Logic of Civil War
Although I have developed a strong tolerance for reading the worlds of the left-wing press through many years of exposure, Christopher Hayes article, “The New Abolitionism”, in The Nation made me almost sick with anger. Hayes’ article is notably noxious, attempting as it does to draw a parallel between the fossil fuel industry and slavery and arguing that efforts to destroy the fossil fuel industry amount to a “New Abolitionism” in that as the Abolitionists of old argued for the destruction of the wealth represented by the slaves held in the Antebellum South, today’s “New Abolitionists” now must argue for destruction of the accumulated wealth represented by fossil fuels. This radical course of action in setting out to deliberately destroy $10 Trillion in wealth is justified, he argues, by the requirement to stop climate change and thereby “save the planet.” This argument for a so-called “New Abolitionism” therefore contains within it all three core elements of what I would describe as the New Totalitarianism.
First, the logic of the New Totalitarians begins with the flawed assumption that they are setting out to avert an apocalypse of some kind of another. Their views on the issue at hand, they argue, must be adopted or the consequences will be the destruction of all life or something approaching it. It is interesting that the form that this apocalypse will take is often unexamined and it is instead simply deemed to be unthinkable (to remedy this, I would recommend that everyone read Herman Kahn’s brilliant book about nuclear warfare, “Thinking About the Unthinkable”). This assumption that disaster is inevitable and that there is only one course that may avert it leads naturally to the second core assumption of New Totalitarianism.
Since the advocates of this New Totalitarianism, such as Hayes, assume themselves to be in the absolute right and, further, that the fact that they are so is self-evident, they assume that all opposition to both their goals and their methods must be rooted in evil. Hence the abhorrent rhetorical strategies that they adopt in seeking to advance their own goals, such as branding anyone who disagrees with any element of their catechism a “denier” and Hayes’ implicit comparison of those whose economic interests align with the fossil fuel industry with slaveowners. This is not the rhetoric of reason but of the worst kind of religious fanaticism, one which assumes the existence of only One True Faith and which deems those who deny the light and self-evident justice of the One True Faith to be heretics who must be burned and destroyed. The purpose of this sort of intolerance is to make debate impossible.
Finally, because the New Totalitarians believe that they are fighting to ward off Armageddon and that their opponents can only be motivated by evil, they have no patience of the niceties of civil society, and in particular the rule of law. They do not mean to win debates with the opposition, they mean to silence and to destroy it by any means necessary. This tendency is visible across many different fronts and is notably evident in Hayes’ article, wherein he doesn’t even stop to address the fact that the $10 Trillion in wealth that he would so blithely and confidentially destroy represents the work of a lifetime for millions of people -- not merely unsympathetic oil company executives, but also for millions of ordinary people including many millions in the Third World who are enjoying a decent standard of living for the first time in history (and whose aspirations, as I have pointed out many times before, ultimately make any debate over the use of fossil fuels and global CO2 emissions a waste of time and energy). Because they think themselves to have absolute good on their own side and because they believe that their opposition represents absolute evil, the New Totalitarians feel free to demand that the coercive power of the state be used to destroy the property and liberty of individuals and corporations seemingly without any regard for the loss that that actually represents. It is one thing to blithely proclaim, “we must all sacrifice for the state, comrades” from the comfort of your Crimean dacha when it isn’t your family’s farm that is being collectivized.
Hayes’ article is fascinating in that it nudges towards an unspoken truth that the left has seemingly chosen to ignore in its totalitarian drift but then blinks from facing it at the last second. If you set out on a quest to achieve some goal and, along the way, you decide that some other group of people are evil and that they must therefore be targeted for selective prosecution and the confiscation of their property, it is only right and natural that such a group will resist to their last ounce of strength. If we accept -- which I do not, but for the sake of argument I will indulge the notion -- that the countless individuals whose wealth is tied to the consumption of fossil fuels are the equivalent of the slaveholders of the Old South, then does it not follow that they should resist any attack upon their property every bit as fiercely as those who served the Confederacy did? And, if we accept that Hayes is writing in good faith when he acknowledges that there exists a wide moral gulf between the ownership of human beings and that of decomposed plant matter, does it not follow that those whose wealth and economic interests would be attacked would have rather more justice contained in their resistance than those who rose on behalf of the Confederacy did?
Therein lies the fundamental problem with both Hayes’ article and with the architecture of the ideology of the New Totalitarians: if they insist of dogmatically adhering to their own professed beliefs and insist upon using the power of the state to attempt to target the property of a significant percentage of the population for destruction while being utterly willing to use coercion to silence any and all dissent while willingly overriding the rule of law anywhere that it should prove to be an inconvenience, then the inevitable result will be civil war. No group of people, anywhere, should be expected to sit passively by while they and their property are targeted for liquidation and destruction, nor will they. Those segments of the left that are edging towards totalitarianism are not just threatening to start a war: they happen to be leading us towards a war that they will inevitably lose.
After all, why did the South lose the first American Civil War? Ultimately the defeat of the Confederacy was largely a matter of economics. The North had more people and a larger industrial base and in the end they used both to good effect to grind up the armies of the South in spite of the tremendous spirit and gallantry displayed by the latter. If an ideologically-inspired civil war were to take place in America -- or anywhere else in the West, for that matter -- today, who would have more money, more guns, and more soldiers at their disposal?
Adam Yoshida is an author and political commentator. His most recent book is “The Fiery Trial.”